A century-old lost coin leads to the rediscovery of what was once the centerpiece of a long-gone community. Historical buildings are often taken for granted and allowed to slip away.
Sometimes it is an attempt to erase our past; sometimes the culprit is neglect or a lack of money. All three causes intersect in an unassuming wood building in Cambria.
On Nov. 18, 1980, then-Telegram-Tribune reporter Tim Ryan wrote about a rare and endangered building.
Chinese temple: Some call it link to Cambria’s past
Some Cambrians view it as an eyesore.
Old-timers remember it as a place where Clarence Stilts choked to death on a piece of meat.
But Forrest Warren, one of the owners of the dilapidated wood structure, and Dr. Nancy Wey of the state Office of Historic Preservation, believe the building is an important link to Cambria’s past and “a historical document of the Chinese presence in the town.”
It is called a Dios, or house of God. It is a Chinese temple, possibly both Taoist and Buddhist, and it’s located on (a) short dusty, one-way Center Street near Bridge and Main streets in old town Cambria.
Since Warren discovered a Chinese coin in the building several years ago, he has been researching the structure’s possible historical significance. Wey learned of the building in May while she was conducting a yearlong survey of the state’s Chinese historical sites.
Warren and his parents and sister own the property. When the study is completed, he said, he will apply to the state Office of Historic Preservation for a historical designation. The classification would make the owners eligible for tax cuts and preservation grants, Wey said.
“If the building was a temple, it was most certainly the center of Chinese-American activity in Cambria,” Wey said.
“There are only eight Chinese temples left in California, so any new discovery is very significant.”
Only three temples exist south of San Francisco, at Hanford, El Centro and Bakersfield. The Cambria temple would be only the second known to exist along the California coast. The other is in Mendocino.
“This makes the Cambria site even more important,” Wey said.
The Cambria building is often referred to as a Joss House, which Wey said the Chinese considered a racial slur.
“There seems to have been an effort in Southern California to obliterate Chinese history,” she explained. “Many Southern California city halls, including Los Angeles’ and San Bernardino’s have been built over what was once a Chinatown.”
All of the Chinese temples in San Francisco were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and never rebuilt, she said.
The Cambria Dios is a combination of three buildings joined around 1916. The section believed to be the Chinese temple originally sat on the north bank of Santa Rosa Creek, several hundred feet south of its present site. Wey believes the temple may have been constructed between 1870 and 1900.
Other buildings used by the Chinese, including bunk houses, were nearby, Wey said.
Chinese laborers arrived in California around 1870 to work on the construction of the railroad in San Luis Obispo, in the Cambria mines or as seaweed farmers between Cayucos and Cambria, Wey said.
The temple and another building, which sat at the corner of Burton Drive and Main Street, were connected to the one-room B.H. Franklin building, Cambria’s first high school, after the Warren family purchased the property in 1916.
Cambria’s Chinese population left the North Coast around 1920 to join friends and relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Chinese were not citizens and were not allowed to own land.
“Nonwhites could not become citizens,” Wey added.
Wey learned of the Cambria temple accidentally.
“I was in Imperial County interviewing Wong Sing, an elder of a Confucius temple in El Centro,” she said.
“He had been a seaweed farmer near Cambria in the 1920s and remembered the Cambria temple.”
Wey visited the Cambria site in June. She said the “rough hewn” redwood board construction indicates the structure was build around 1870.
The interior of the temple has been altered considerably, she said. There is nothing left of the original altar except a narrow shelf where it sat.
Some people Wey has spoken to said the temple was used for both Taoist and Buddhist beliefs.
“This is very unusual,” she said.
Thus far, all the documentation has been oral testimony. The pair will need substantial written and photographic proof before the building can be designated a historical site.
Wey completed the state’s $34,000 survey in June. However, she will continue to help Warren with his study of the building’s history.
“Every piece of Chinese-American history is important to the multiethnic heritage of the United States,” she said.
“There is very little written about the Chinese in our history books, and what has been written has negative racial overtones to it.”
Today, Warren uses the temple section of the building as an office. The front portion is closed off, Warren said, because the floor boards are unsafe.
He has no intention of demolishing the building and he hopes to receive a state grant to restore the structure.
The Warren family returned to its San Simeon ranch in 1927 after selling the Center Street property to Clarence Stilts, who later choked to death in the house. The Warrens later repurchased the property.
The building stands unobtrusively, leaning slightly to one side. It is partially overgrown with weeds and wildflowers.
“People often think it is only the spectacular monuments which are historically important,” Wey said. “But while Cambria’s weathered Chinese temple may physically appear small and unpretentious, it may be very significant to Chinese-American heritage.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover. I’m afraid Cambrians may not realize the significance of what they have in their own backyard.”
The story has a happy ending. The community came together through Greenspace to rescue the building. A donation from the Hind Foundation of San Luis Obispo helped the effort. The building was restored to its original shape and now stands in a park next to the creek on Center Street.
It was dedicated May 19.